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Behind the Art: “untitled self-portrait (time for tea)”

By Việt Lê


Việt Lê’s untitled self-portrait (time for tea) is the cover art for the June 2018 issue of Words without Borders: The Queer Issue IX.

Passing stranger! you do not know how longingly I look upon you,
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
All is recall’d as we flit by each other, fluid, affectionate, chaste, matured,
You grew up with me, were a boy with me or a girl with me,
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
I am to wait, I do not doubt I am to meet you again,
I am to see to it that I do not lose you.

—From Walt Whitman’s “To a Stranger”

“Untitled self-portrait (time for tea)” is from a series of untitled self-portraits in various gendered guises and gestures created before the age of social media, #selfies, and #filters. Looking back at these images, I think of the words that haunted me then: longing and loss. Racial melancholia, the oriental obscene—what is obfuscated, offscreen, mise-en-scène? Looking back, the “passing stranger” in Whitman’s poem can also be “passing” in terms of gender, race, class. Ga(y)zing forward, the stranger in the poem is also oneself—it takes lifetimes to embrace our interconnectedness, no matter how fleeting. You grew up with me, were a boy with me or a girl with me . . .

The (political) body electric. In the book Stranger Intimacy, Nayan Shaw talks about the intimate networks forged among strangers and the historical policing of queer migrants. The borders of desire and desirability are still policed today. Which “strangers” (refugees, dissidents, “terrorists”) are loved, and which are loathed?

“Untitled self-portrait (time for tea)” refers to “tea” as slang, gossip (“spill the tea”), wars fought over tea-trade deficits (the nineteenth-century Anglo-Chinese Opium Wars), tea parties and the Tea Party. Tea, tease, teeth, teethe. It also evokes “tea rooms,” clandestine public spaces (such as bathrooms) for gay sex. In cruising utopia in the age of homonationalism, what have we lost, and what do we long for?

Our identities veil the depths of our grief and love.


Published Jun 11, 2018   Copyright 2018 Việt Lê

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